Friday, June 10, 2011

High (School) Jinks at the Movies

High school largely created teenagers as a distinct subculture by forcing them together for four years, and by the 1920s, many businesses were targeting teens with specialized product lines. The movie business, if anything, was slow out of the gate – perhaps because few of the first generation of studio moguls went to high school. College movies actually preceded high school movies as a significant genre even though only a tiny percentage of the population went to college in the 20s and 30s. Some of these early college films are edgy. Today’s college movies are raunchy, but that is not at all the same thing. If you haven’t already done so, try The Plastic Age (1925) in which party girl Clara Bow corrupts a young undergrad by diverting him from study and sports, or Finishing School (1934) in which bad girl Ginger Rogers explains to new arrival Francis Dee that it’s smart to appear good, but stupid to be good. After 1934, the Hays decency code was enforced seriously, and college movies lost their edge for the next 30 years.

In the 1930s, the studios finally discovered high school, and almost from the start the movies invented as many teen cultural fashions as they reflected. There were exceptions, but, in general the 30s and 40s high school movies were wholesome with a vengeance. Witness the first four Nancy Drew movies (pretty good), the Andy Hardy series (hopelessly corny, but some viewers love them), 1942’s The Major and the Minor (good with a dash of propaganda), and the pleasant The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer (1947) with little-girl-no-more Shirley Temple frightening an older Cary Grant with her crush. Somewhat surprisingly, the family values were ditched in the 1950s. For all the very real social repression and family-friendly TV of the time, 50s productions of high school movies were decidedly less innocent. Socially conscious films appeared such as Blackboard Jungle and Rebel without a Cause as did exploitation films such as Girls Town and High School Confidential.

High school movies evolved with the times in the next few decades, really hitting their stride in the 80s with a full range of sleaze (Angel), comedy (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off), drama (The Breakfast Club), and countless horror movies (Student Bodies). The genre has remained strong ever since. Commonly found on lists of “the best high school movies” of the last two decades are Cruel Intentions (wicked fun), 10 Things I Hate about You (a clever crib from Shakespeare), Mean Girls (genuinely funny), and Superbad. I must admit the inclusion of the last one mystifies me, but it regularly appears on the lists, so perhaps I’m missing something.

The genre is successful not just because teens are the best cinema customers and like seeing movies about themselves, but because these films strike a chord with anyone who ever has been to high school. (PTSD?) The best high school movies are of their time, yet timeless. You can’t get more 80s than the Brat Pack movies, for example, but it is the rare teenager in 2011 who hasn’t seen them all.

My personal all-time favorite is arguably not part of the genre at all even though it does take place in a school full of teenagers. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie hit theaters in 1969, but it was set in the 1930s. Miss Brodie, played by Maggie Smith, better known today as Minerva in the Harry Potter films (themselves high school movies of a sort), is a teacher at a girls school in Edinburgh, Scotland. She is nonconformist, romantic in the broader sense, and inspiring in every way except that…well...she’s a fascist. Literally. It’s hard not to admire her defiance of the prudish, repressive Victorian values she encounters at every turn, especially from the school’s conservative headmistress, but Miss Brodie truly is objectionable in ways the headmistress doesn’t really grasp. As Brodie’s most trusted student and “special girl” Sandy eventually (and correctly) charges, “You are dangerous and unwholesome, and children should not be exposed to you!” Yet, even in rebellion, Sandy owes to Miss Brodie’s influence her strength and independence of mind about moral choices. Sandy is perfectly played by a young Pamela Franklin.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie tries to explain the appeal fascism had (and has) to the most surprising people, though this is just a single part of a multilayered movie.

I hesitate to give Brodie a general recommendation, since it surely is not for everyone. But if you’re up for something set on a school campus that is stylish and thoughtful, this one is worth a try. Besides, I saw and liked it as a high school junior, and I was anything but evolved.

1 comment:

  1. Oh, that sounds like a good one. I've heard of it before, but I'm always up to see Maggie Smith as a fascist. And yes, I still get a kick out of the '80s brat pack flicks, as well as the more recent ones you mentioned. I even enjoyed "Superbad", although not as much as "Mean Girls". :)